Line up a small or medium-sized business next to a giant corporation, and you may as well be looking at two different species. Whether you’re talking about finding customers, financing growth, recruiting talent, or running the back office, life in SMB Land is dramatically different from life in Big Business.
Until recently, the gulf between SMBs and major players made digital transformation accessible only to the largest companies. Back when cloud computing was in its infancy, the high cost of proprietary software (and the equipment to run it) put digital enhancements out of reach for anyone without corporate-sized pockets.
Now, thanks to rapid advances in technology (many of them due to the pandemic), even startups can optimize their business model using digital products and services. Consider, for instance, how wireless Point-of-Sale (POS) systems, such as Square, enable micro retailers to deliver an “omnichannel shopping experience.” An artisan business selling hemp jewelry can sell its products at the local farmer’s market, at a kiosk on a university campus, and online—all using the same simple tool.
As innovation widens the digital playing field, smaller companies can now copy moves made by larger organizations, adapting them to the SMB context. David may not be able to wield Goliath’s spear or wear his armor, but he can create scaled-down versions of these to suit his own purposes and style. At the rate new digital products and services are emerging, there’s no need to settle for just a sling shot anymore.
Three Goliath-sized organizations from which SMBs can learn are Prudential Financial, Home Depot, and the San Francisco 49ers football team.
Prudential Financial’s commitment to upskilling
Prudential has been around longer than the telephone. Founded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it has continually evolved to keep pace with its customers. As a prime example of this adaptability, in 2019 it acquired Assurance IQ, an AI-enabled platform that connects buyers with a range of insurance solutions.
As CFO Ken Tanji told Forbes, Prudential is “constantly exploring new ways to innovate customer engagement through technology.” For consumers, this ongoing innovation is a boon. Through the Assurance technology, for example, they’re able to reach more customers with less effort, making their products accessible to a wider range of people.
For employees, on the other hand, changes in technology require continual learning. Prudential supports this through what Tanji calls “a broad internal training and educational program.” The aim is to help employees use technology in ways that reduce routine, repetitive work and emphasize “meaningful work that drives… business strategy and growth.”
As a SMB, you may not have the resources to develop an extensive catalog of eLearning and in-person training programs to support your technology roll-outs. But here are some things you can do to help your team develop new skills and confidence:
- Introduce digital solutions in tandem with off-the-shelf training from online sources such as Udemy and LinkedIn Learning.
- Encourage reverse mentoring (enable younger “digital natives” to coach older employees in new technologies)
- Start a library of employee-produced videos describing how to solve technology issues, using a screen recorder such as Loom
Home Depot’s transition to “digital first”
When the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, Home Depot was already a step ahead of the shift to online sales. They’d invested heavily in e-commerce capabilities to create a seamless multichannel shopping experience they called “One Home Depot.”
Home Depot knew their customer base was changing. They needed to engage a new breed of consumer—the Do-It-Yourselfer who wanted to plan their own project but also wanted some of it done for them. Their solution was “a frictionless, interconnected shopping experience” that could begin online and end in a bricks-and-mortar store. Customers could research their purchases online and then connect in-store with knowledgeable staff to help them arrange installation services.
This “digital first” strategy enabled Home Depot to sail through the first months of the pandemic with record sales. As a SMB, you too can go “digital first” by using web-based technology to reach and serve new customers.
For example, one of our clients from the advertising industry is switching from their traditional focus on print product to a new emphasis on eMarketing. Modern technology solutions are enabling them to create an ongoing communication stream with prospects and customers.
Some simple ways to prioritize your customers’ digital experience of your company include:
- Refresh your website by using real photos of you and your team, not stock photos
- Add a live chat function to your website
- Beef up descriptions of your products and services, including detailed specifications and customer reviews
- Feature part of your inventory in an online “store window” (a small online store within your website)
San Francisco 49ers real-time fan reporting
Fan engagement is the key to profitability for any sports enterprise. As a data-driven organization, the 49ers were accustomed to circulating and analyzing regular fan surveys. But their Vice-President of Strategy and Analytics, Moon Javaid, wanted a more accurate, timely way to take the pulse of the crowd at Levi Stadium.
He teamed up with HappyOrNot a Finnish company that develops “Smiley” kiosks featuring four emoticons. Customers simply press a button to indicate how pleased they are with the current level of service in the stadium. Almost instantly, that information enters into a real-time reporting app, which alerts decision-makers of any issues at the concession stand, in the restrooms, in the ticket line-up, and so on.
As a SMB, how can you stay in closer touch with your fans so you can respond to their needs almost as soon as they express them? You might be surprised to discover some of the simple, affordable options available to you. For example, we helped a craft brewery develop a predictive production model so they could avoid losses caused by making either too much or too little beer to satisfy market demand. A little research showed that the brewery had years of paper-based data that could be used to create such a solution at a reasonable cost.
Here are some other digital solutions you could try to connect more closely with your market:
- Shift your sales team’s efforts from traditional channels to social selling (engaging with leads via social media)
- Replace paper-based customer satisfaction surveys with digital forms
- Harmonize customer data collected through various business processes
As these corporate examples show, digital transformation comes in many different flavors. Just because you don’t have the name recognition or budget of a large company doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the digital successes of big players to blaze your own innovation trail, at the pace and scale that are right for you.
 Thomson, J. (2019, December 6). Prudential CFO: How an Old Company Learns New Digital Tricks. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffthomson/2019/12/06/prudential-cfo-how-an-old-company-learns-new-digital-tricks/?sh=534dbd457a9e